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'Lady Dee' brings the South home at Mint Julep Bistro
By Lisa Ackleson | Daily Herald Correspondent

Chef Diana Davenport is a hands-on owner of Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Guests who want to try chef Diana Davenport's Southern-style tomatoes can get a sample with their dinner at Mint Julep Bistro through Feb. 8.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/4/2009 12:01 AM

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For Diana "Lady Dee" Davenport, 64, chef/owner of Mint Julep Bistro in downtown Palatine, Southern cooking is "comfort food with a home feel and Southern hospitality is where you can sit as long as you like because love is in the kitchen."

She should know. Born in Galveston, Texas, and raised in Savannah, Ga., chef Davenport began cooking alongside her grandmother at the tender age of 5.

She later attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, graduating with a bachelor's degree and hoping to attend veterinary school. When that plan didn't work out, her grandmother encouraged her to go cook. Davenport took the advice and attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, interning at Mama Leones in Manhattan before graduating in 1963.

What inspired you to specialize in Southern cooking?

I learned Southern cooking while working in a Gullah restaurant, Chef Ray's, in Charleston, S.C. The Gullah, originally descendants of slaves, are a mix of black, white, Native American and Spanish people. They had their own language, Geechee, and cooked real soul food. They lived on what they could catch and kill and used Spanish spices. Gullah cooking was around long before Creole and Cajun cooking.

Why is Southern-style cooking so popular?

It's not over-the-top gourmet. Today's chefs are trying to get into too many layers of flavor, which confuses the brain. When I was in school, I learned that more than four flavors in a dish is overkill. The goal is to make each element stand out and taste wonderful and not just appear as artwork that isn't edible.

Do you have a favorite Southern dish?

Shrimp and grits. In the Midwest, people aren't crazy about a pool of grits, so we make ours like polenta with a crust and a soft center flavored with cheese and garlic.

What kitchen task do you enjoy most?

Even though I'm the executive chef, I still enjoy line cooking. I love to cook; it's my signature. I've taught my staff how to cook, and everything is made from scratch using seasonal ingredients. I like to be with them - cooking together.

What is your favorite culinary memory?

Cooking with chef Ray Blant. I was his fry cook and made the soft-shell crab and Southern fried chicken. He taught me how to make his banana fritters, a recipe from his grandmother who was a slave in the Caribbean. We will serve them on our Sunday brunch menu.

What's one thing in your refrigerator that you could not live without?

Eggs, cream and butter. I love to make country-fried steak and mashed potatoes with sawmill gravy.

What's the secret to making a tender biscuit?

Not to ever, ever overwork the dough. It's a mere matter of combining all of your ingredients, patting them together like you would a baby's butt and cutting them out. What makes them flaky is that you are allowing the shortening to "lay" between the layers of flour. This creates pockets of air that contribute to tenderness.

Whose culinary work do you admire?

Mario Batali. I love Italian food. What he teaches on his show is regional, home-style Italian cooking. He doesn't go over the top with his stuff. His Italian style is like my Southern style; he makes it seem homey and comfortable.

When you're not cooking, what do you like to do?

I have been showing horses for 48 years. I am also going to write a recipe book; I have 274 recipes so far. I would like to include a section on church gathering food - what I call meet-and-eat.

Tell us about this recipe.

Southern-style Tomatoes is a side dish that is often eaten with pork chops or fried chicken; it's a real Southern dish.

Enjoy this at home or at Mint Julep Bistro, 53 W. Slade St., Palatine, (847) 934-3000, mintjulepbistro.com.

• To recommend a chef, write to food@dailyherald.com.

Southern Style Tomatoes

21/2 teaspoons brown sugar

4 teaspoons flour

21/2 cups quartered tomatoes, peeled

1 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons butter

1 teaspoon bacon drippings

1 teaspoon onion, minced

Pepper to taste

Topping

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup cheddar cheese

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a saucepan, mix the brown sugar with the flour and then add the tomatoes, salt, butter, bacon drippings and onion; simmer 10 minutes.

Place the mixture in a casserole dish and top with the bread crumbs and cheddar cheese and bake 6 to 8 minutes until lightly browned and cheese is melted. Serve as a side dish.

Serves four.

Chef Diana "Lady Dee" Davenport, Mint Julep Bistro, Palatine